On a sticky May evening in Alabama, my family of four sits crowded on a giant pillow in the back of our pickup truck at the drive-in theater in Harpersville, a short ways outside Birmingham.
As the previews drone into a sinking sun and the mosquitoes commence their whiny score, I unpack the sushi I made earlier with my boys. We have cucumber–cream cheese rolls with pickled carrot strips, inside-out rolls encased in thin sheets of smoked salmon and avocado, sesame-Sriracha crab salad rolls, crunchy panko-shrimp rolls, and snug edamame pods tossed with sea salt. There is dessert sushi, too: Rice Krispies treats trimmed into little rectangles, each topped with a gummy fish and wrapped with a strip of fruit leather—a sweet idea borrowed from Pinterest.
The kids pounce with their rubber-banded learning chopsticks. My boys are, at age 8, bean-pole skinny, but also enthusiastic little eating machines, smiling and conspiratorially snatching up pieces of shrimp roll before my husband, Patrick, or I can get to our share.
"Boys," Patrick says, leaning back on the pillow that is, in fact, a converted dog bed, "do you know how old I was when I first ate homemade sushi at a drive-in theater?"
They don't bother to answer, just chew away furiously as they wait for the punch line.
"Forty-five!" This is my husband's age right now: He has never—we have never—eaten sushi at the drive-in before. I like to pepper these playful food adventures into our children's lives; it's a way to make a food memory that will, I hope, stick. Or perhaps I'm looking for ways to rewrite my own memories of their first food experiences.
"And you're doing this at age 8!" says Patrick. "Y'all are some lucky boys."
We say that a lot: lucky boys. We feel it always, measure it often—that luck, the distance between boys happily eating sushi in the back of a pickup truck and boys fighting for their lives, locked away in the clear boxes of their hospital incubators where I could not touch them, could not feed them, could not offer them nourishment of any kind.
Nothing can prepare you for a pregnancy that goes off script. When I learned I was pregnant, four weeks in, I indulged in a rich series of fantasies about the role that food would play in my relationship with my child. First, gradual nourishment of the developing baby by a diet of carefully chosen foods that would send cascades of essential nutrients to the butter bean via the placenta (while I, out in the world I was sheltering my baby from, gave up my sacred Southern elixir, bourbon, and all other alcohol—and, God forbid, all caffeine). After the birth it would be mother's milk as boundless as mother's love: food created from within myself to give Baby all those precious immunity factors. Thereafter, my child would move not merely to solid food, but to one perfectly balanced, handmade, fresh, adventurous meal after another as we set out, our little family, into the world of deliciousness.
The off-scripting happened in August 2005, at our 20-week ultrasound. The tech skated the wand over my belly to detect the heartbeat we had last heard 12 weeks earlier. She confirmed the sound from a few angles, looked up, and announced this: "Both sound great, two healthy heartbeats."
One of us (I think it was Patrick, but the memory has been obscured by what followed) asked if she meant my heartbeat and the baby's.
"No," she said. "There are two babies in there." The tech, seeing our gobsmacked expressions, ran off to find our doctor.
At best, the sudden fact of twins is a mighty big thing to swallow, far more than a mere doubling. The real news, though, came next: As Dr. Brown outlined, I was now in a race to feed my babies, and I was starting dangerously late in the game.
Everything changes drastically with two babies to nourish. Two babies and my age—36—put my pregnancy into high-risk territory. It was worse than that, though. Twins are often born premature, which means they don't benefit from the usual fattening and finishing period of the last few weeks in utero. Thus moms are encouraged to gain weight early, in the first trimester, when the discovery of two heartbeats usually happens. That gives the mother a good long run at gaining 35 to 45 pounds—roughly 50% more than what's suggested for a single baby.
But I'd been pacing myself for a singleton and a full term, and I had only gained about 8 pounds by week 20. Ideally, I should have been at double that by this point.
"You need to gain weight … fast," Dr. Brown explained. If I didn't, my babies would be at risk.
"Gain weight fast" is jarring advice for a woman who has spent most of her life believing that her ideal weight was always 5 to 20 pounds less than what the scale showed. But what sort of food? I pictured spectacular portions of well-chosen delicacies essential for bonny babies. "The quality of your calories doesn't matter," Dr. Brown said. "Just take in as many as you possibly can. When you gain weight, the babies gain weight."
Patrick and I returned to our cozy 1920s bungalow, with its two dogs and one cat, worried how 1,100 square feet could possibly accommodate an extra baby, a second crib, and twice the massive piles of stuff every friend of ours who had a baby seemed to acquire. Patrick drew a stick-figure portrait of our future family to make me laugh, the straight lines of our mouths signaling our bewilderment. But we had immediate orders: Feed those babies. My early food fantasy was dead, replaced by something urgent and immediate, a sprint to a likely premature finish line. I was afraid.
For the first time in my adult life, I surrendered kitchen duties to someone else—to Patrick, because I had been instructed to rest after work. This was unsettling, as it would be to any alpha cook, but I figured the period might turn out to be an interesting adventure, and possibly a good bit of fun—a holiday from calorie caution and kitchen work for the best possible cause. Of course, it was quickly dreadful, a high-stakes all-you-can-eat contest. Patrick became the calorie pusher, examining food labels with an inverted purpose, seeking what years as a food editor at Cooking Light had taught me to approach with caution—the fattiest, most calorie-dense foods. I quickly tired of his starch-heavy meals, begging for crisp salads.
He would answer with an Aztec burial mound on a platter: a few leaves flattened under a heap of olives, marinated artichoke hearts, almonds, sunflower seeds, feta cheese, and avocados. His pride and joy was the milk shake served nightly: premium ice cream, a wad of peanut butter, a 350-calorie can of Boost. (I ran the numbers recently: 1,100 calories.) It was absolutely delicious, and horrible to contemplate after a heavy dinner. Making puffed-cheek protests, I'd suck it dry, then exhale a long victory groan.
As bad as the force-feeding was, we needed it to go on for 12, even 16, weeks. But a mere 8 weeks after we began The Big Feed, at 28 weeks into my pregnancy, I went into premature labor and was hospitalized under strict orders to remain flat on my back so that gravity would not pull the babies gushing out into the world. At this point, my body rebelled, and I suffered horrible acid reflux. As little as two cubes of Jell-O or half a dinner roll would beat an angry acid path up my throat, and there stall, burning and nauseating. I knew I needed to keep eating for the babies, but in my supine state I just couldn't—the reflux was that bad.
In any case, the bedridden acid phase of eating would prove shockingly brief.
Babies out, there were no Apgar scores, no smacks on wrinkled bottoms followed by hearty cries signaling appetite for life. From my boys, silence. "That's what stands out the most," Patrick remembers. "It was so noisy with alarms, and there were two teams of doctors and nurses, so there were a lot of voices. But there were no baby sounds." Instead, the room was animated by the focused rush of the teams to get the two tiny boys to the neonatal intensive care unit—the NICU, known forever by all who frequent it as the Nick-U.
I remained on the sidelines, where I was cleaned up and my incision cauterized. The babies were not paraded past for me to admire on their way out, so I had no idea if they were breathing (probably not) or had 10 fingers and 10 toes (the least of our worries, it turned out). I, mother of these fishy aliens, would not even get to see them for four hours. When I did see them, it was devastating. I was supposed to give birth to fat, happy Buddhas. Instead, I spit out two spiders. That's what they looked like to me when I first laid eyes on them: spindly limbs diverging off a core. They were now red (a good thing, a sign of oxygen at work) and angry-looking little things, with wires and leads emanating from taut abdomens. So unplump, so unhealthy. Their closed, semitranslucent eyelids were smeared with Vaseline. They had respirator tubes down their throats, mouthpieces held in place with white tape that stretched across their tiny faces. I was terrified of them. I was ashamed. Not ashamed of my babies, but ashamed because their prematurity was my failure—my body having failed to complete the most basic of jobs: a normal, nourishing pregnancy. I had given birth to two boys unready for the world, unfattened, unfinished.
Connor weighed 2 pounds 13 ounces, Daniel a couple of ounces less. This was great! we were told, considering how early they were—all that eating had paid off. Patrick and I were praised for our caloric diligence. I was not convinced, not as someone who couldn't keep her babies safe long enough inside for them to be safe outside.
Babies born this premature cannot process breast milk and cannot suckle. So my boys' first food was not, as I had envisioned, milk from my breasts. It was clear and came through central IV lines tapped into their belly buttons—this would be their only nourishment for the first couple of days.
But they survived. And then, three days into their struggle, I was discharged from the hospital, and confronted the next unimaginable thing: returning to a quiet house, its rushed-to-finish nursery mocking and pathetic in its readiness for two babies who would remain in the hospital for seven weeks more.
Because my boys were so little, so fragile, it would be four days before I could even hold Connor, and three more for Daniel, who remained longer on the respirator. The first few times, I would be handed not a baby but something more like a burrito, the body always swaddled in layers of blankets for warmth because my preemies had no fat of their own for insulation. Those first few days, I could not fondle little toes, feel the instinctual grip of fingers on my fingers, caress soft backs or bellies. Instead, I would hold a frighteningly light lump of fabric, feeling great tenderness toward the bundle but not the overwhelming, unbearable love that I'd heard about.
In time, that would come. The hospital encouraged something called kangaroo care, skin-to-skin contact between preemie and mother that helps bond the two, calms the baby, syncs body temperatures, encourages breast milk production, and generally shortens hospital time. I was able to try this first with Connor when he was about a week old. I unbuttoned my sweater and watched anxiously as the nurse unwrapped my baby. This would be the first time I would really touch him! By this point, Connor had dropped to about 2½ pounds; he had lost a few ounces after birth, as most babies, even full-term babies, do. I gently reached for the slumped, baggy-kneed creature, one hand cupping his tiny diapered bottom and the other firm against his back, where every vertebrae protruded in relief. I brought him to my chest, somehow stayed untangled from the wires, leads, and oxygen line, and nestled his little puppy body against mine. He squirmed for a moment and then settled in, quiet and still against the soft pillow of my chest, and we soaked in each other's warmth. Now an absolutely certain love, deep bliss mixed with profound sadness, shot through my every nerve: the physical, painful feeling I had been hoping for.
I went into a trance. The bells and alarms of the NICU receded, the worry that my glance might invade the precious privacy of another mom having that moment with her baby fell away, and it was as if Connor and I were in a bubble, sunk together in our embrace to the bottom of something like a murky pond. Right then, it wasn't just the best place for him but also the place I desperately needed. If there is such a thing as perfect emotional nourishment, here it began, but it persisted only a few seconds until the room, with its alarms and activity, surfaced and roused me. The bubble was an illusion. There was no safe, quiet place for my baby. The only bubble that existed had burst at 29 weeks and pushed my tiny children out into the world before they were ready, so that now they lived in a mechanized substitute I was only allowed to visit certain hours each day. I held this uncertain being as tightly as I dared, felt how small he was, and I sobbed for him and his brother. Why did they come so early? They weren't done yet, they weren't ready. The short answer was that my body had failed, couldn't nourish them sufficiently. Despite all the kind, supportive people around me, I was entering the loneliest time of my life: No one else could share the guilt of this colossal failure.
A few days later, I was allowed to kangaroo both Connor and Daniel together. They started out separate on either side of my chest but found their way to each other, forehead to forehead; their breathing synced up, they became calm, and I thought that was about the sweetest thing ever. To this day, they still come together like that: I'll often find them watching cartoons, one kid flat on his stomach on the couch and the other lying on top of him—two long, skinny planks glued together, calm and breathing in rhythm.
When they were brand-new, Connor and Daniel were still fetuses—that's how the nurses explained it to us. They would not even develop the suck-swallow-breathe reflex until about 33 weeks gestation, a full month after they were born. Nevertheless, after a couple of days of IV nourishment, they were "gut-primed" by having Maalox pumped through a feeding tube that went through their noses down into their bellies—a gavage for my spindly goslings. They would receive their factory-made food this way for the next few weeks. Eating would be mechanical, medicinal, done through tubes, measured in cc's, not mediated by the body or touch of their mother.
But their mother was busy, pumping breast milk, "liquid gold" as everyone insisted on calling it. The nurses and lactation consultants reminded me over and over that this was the best thing for my babies: Preemies, more than other newborns, need their mother's milk desperately. I'd hook up to that demanding machine 8 to 10 times a day—setting my alarm so I could get up during the night to pump away in groggy fury—but despite all the nagging and pulling, I averaged just 2 tablespoons per session. I know this because I kept a crude log of every rendezvous with the machine.
When I study the tiny notations now, it seems to map a descent into madness, a wet nurse's version of Jack Nicholson's manuscript in The Shining: The entries, the days, the weeks go on and on, page after page, demonstrating the seeming insanity of my efforts. Over a 24-hour period, I might dribble out about 1 cup, not much gold to be shared between two needy babies. I'd collect what I could, though, and, embarrassed, hand over my paltry daily delivery to nurses who would blush with pity. Every day I'd see other moms dropping off what had to be quarts of the stuff. Many of them had so much they had to freeze some. I felt like less of a mother, less of a woman.
Pumping, pumping, pumping. I tried everything: kangaroo care, relaxing music, lit candles, photos of my babies to look at while I pumped, recordings of their cries. The "let down" reflex never came. I pumped for five months with no increase in output, until finally Dr. Brown let me off the hook: The babies came so early, she explained, that my body was just not ready. If I hadn't been renting the breast pump from the hospital, I would have taken it out to a field with a baseball bat and disposed of it with tremendous satisfaction, Office Space–style.
I dwelled on the question of what this all meant—the cruel irony that the feeder, who had failed to get her babies to term, was still powerless to feed. I could not take control, could not solve the problem by doing what I do best: None of my cooking, none of my belabored menu planning, which has always been at the heart of how I express love, could touch this. What I finally came to was that it didn't mean anything. It simply was what it was—our fate. And in the tradition of all the great Southern literature I adore, I accepted that fate was more powerful than intentions. I did not exactly make peace with this, but I knew my place in this world.
My boys were fed by tube for a month. Finally, they gained the suckling reflex and learned to eat from a bottle the size of a spice jar, fitted with a special preemie nipple that was small and easy-flowing. This meant they were also big enough to feed at the source, no matter how inadequate the source was proving to be. I took a few stabs at nursing Connor. (I could never try with Daniel due to medical complications.) Each attempt was in equal measure hilarious and demoralizing. We sat in the middle of the NICU with a flimsy curtain pulled around us. The lactation consultant was there, along with Patrick: an audience. My breasts would be handled, complimented, and repositioned, and Connor would be guided to the docking station. Each time, he was absolutely repelled, mortified, pissed off, his tiny arms pushing with all their pitiful strength to remove his face from the horror of that thing. Like the pumping, breastfeeding just never worked. We supplemented my meager milk with formula, stuck to the bottle, and the babies received the food they needed. What irony for a whole-foods preacher: industrialized, big-factory, "nonnatural" formula was keeping my babies alive, and I am forever grateful to the people who invented that stuff.
Our seven-week life in the NICU continued, consisting of long zoo visits in which we sat, helpless and powerless, watching our babies through the walls of their Isolettes, the heated incubators in which they lived. Holding times were seldom and special, only a few a day and for a few minutes each time. We adjusted to the daily rhythm of two steps forward, one step back, as each day the nurses would, as a sign of confidence, push the babies to the point of failure—lowering medicine levels, reducing the amount of supplemental oxygen, leaving the babies outside their Isolettes. Patrick and I adopted a strange new language that included terms like "tachycardia," "intraventricular hemorrhage," "As and Bs," and "O2 sats." We learned what a serious alarm sounded like as opposed to those just alerting the nurse to a change, and we knew how the neophyte parents felt as they entered this strange world of buzzers, bells, crying, laughter, milk, and medicine, and we could tell when one of our extended NICU family members took a downward turn. We knew, deep down, just how lucky we were because our boys kept improving.
Connor came home on December 23, Daniel a day later. They were still considered preterm, now at 36 weeks (37 weeks defines full-term). They were also still tiny, under 5 pounds, and our orders, echoing my own at week 20, were clear: Put on weight. Nourishment was more important than ever, and we were on our own to provide it—no nurses to help, no more gavage. It was a terrifying responsibility.
We established a rigorous feeding schedule, waking the babies just to eat. Often, they had the audacity to fall asleep in the middle of a feeding. The nurses had armed us with tactics to keep them alert and sucking—stroking their cheeks, unwrapping their burrito swaddling, tapping the bottoms of their little feet, and, as a last resort, placing a cold washcloth or, just maybe, a cold beer bottle against their cheeks.
It worked, and the boys started to grow. We began to relax. Then, a new horror. Their bodies, like mine at the end of the pregnancy, began a bilious revolution, a period of severe, scream-inducing reflux. It played out like this: first, tremendous hunger, screams for food, ravenous swiping for the bottle. Then, a few minutes into the feed, a new variety of screaming, and pushing of the bottle away. Food traveled back up each baby's tiny esophagus and burned like fire—food hurt. We'd patiently work to soothe and coax to empty a bottle, and then all our efforts would be undone, as each baby would hurl up what seemed like twice the volume of what went down. We owned 36 burp cloths and often cycled through all of them twice in the course of a day. The next weigh-in at the doctor's office showed weight loss instead of gain: failure to thrive, the most devastating diagnosis.
All the while, friends and colleagues delivered dinners to Patrick and me three times a week. This Feeding of the Parents was kept up for four months, an amazing display of mealtime kindness. We were well nourished but couldn't properly nourish our own children. I felt the thing every mother feels at some point: complete inadequacy. The feeling wasn't fleeting, though; for me, it was constant, and I desperately needed a victory.
For a year, it felt like, the reflux continued—but it was only about a month. New thinking, new pediatrician, new gastroenterologist, and new meds came into play. Finally, the revolution died down. The babies started to thrive, and by the time they were 6 months old, they were round and cute. Life, at last, normalized.
Now, at last, the fantasy began. Food could be experienced with pleasure, not fear and anticipation—as a source of great joy, not just a means of survival. I had spent six months feeling inept and helpless as a feeder but now could share a healthy appreciation of eating and cooking with my children. The possibilities were thrilling.
As toddlers, Connor and Daniel loved pretty much every fruit and most vegetables. They also liked Indian daals with basmati rice, pesto-dressed bucatini, smashed avocado toasts, stinky cheeses, and every kind of olive. The options seemed endless, until of course my boys entirely reversed their opinions. No more avocados for Daniel, no daal for Connor. No! More! Olives! I have always refused to cook separate meals for my kids, so they continued to be exposed to a great deal of choices—yet so many were left orphaned on the plate. Age 3 was a time of great culinary attrition; the most reliable menu items were roast chicken, cheese grits, and broccoli.
Things reversed again about a year later. At their 4-year checkup, the pediatrician teased, "Let me see, I'll bet you just love Brussels sprouts!" The boys didn't get the joke. Instead, speaking as a unit as they often do, they replied in high-pitched voices, "We love them! Especially roasted!" After returning home from a business trip, I told the boys I would treat them to something special for dinner. Anything they wanted. "McDonald's!" they squealed. Fine, but they could see I wasn't happy about it. "Oh, you really mean we can have anything anything?" asked Connor. "Then grilled fish, please." "Yes, grilled salmon!!" they both screamed.
Cue the maternal pride.
Now, at age 8, they love all kinds of foods: "pond soup," their nickname for Vietnamese pho ("It's as big as a pond!"); olive tapenade, which Connor can smell from two rooms away; prickly, Dr. Seussian rambutan fruit; Indonesian fried dried anchovies mixed with palm sugar and peanuts; sardines packed in olive oil; chorizo-chickpea stew; and alligator tail, which they begged for after catching an episode of Swamp People. What a delight—I am finally able to nurture my boys as I had always imagined, to share the rewards of the wide-open, adventurous world of food.
I often cook skin-on salmon in a wee bit of duck fat so the skin gets supercrisp. The first time I served this to the boys, Daniel picked off and devoured all the flesh, leaving the crisp gray slab on his plate as he ate his vegetables. I held my tongue. After he finished everything else on his plate, Daniel folded the skin into a bite-sized parcel and put the whole thing in his mouth. He closed his eyes in rapturous pleasure, smiled, and savored.
There's a poetry to the way kids appreciate good food. They know the difference between eight-for-a-dollar salty packaged noodles and a milky-rich bowl of tonkotsu ramen. At Daniel's first taste of the latter, he again closed his eyes, smiled a dreamy smile, and said—with no irony, with real earnestness— "This broth gives me life." When Connor first tasted the smoked paprika–rich essence of my chorizo-chickpea stew, he singsonged, "I want to eat this forever." Their cousin Henry came home from school to a house smelling of Cooking Light's Beef Daube Provençal, which his mother had been slow-cooking for hours. "It smells like the past," he said dreamily.
Children get philosophical at the table. After the crab leg feast on their eighth birthday, Daniel mused, "Who would have thought that dead animals could taste so good?" Children also know their own tastes. I once made broccoli-Parmesan fritters, which didn't go over well. "But they're made from things you like," I protested. "You love broccoli, and you love Parm, and they're crispy."
"Well, I think that's the problem," explained Connor. "They're too cheesy. We like broccoli. Can we please just have plain broccoli next time?" Wise words from a big-eyed boy, sweetly admonishing me. If I have to be reminded to keep things simple and not overcomplicate my cooking, I'll take it that way any day.
Other times, when I've not hit the mark, when flavors collide or seasoning is too intense, they simply say, "Too much flavor!" (This is also what they say when they get embarrassed at kissing scenes on TV.) I recently made Meyer lemon gummy candies (shaped like Legos, of course), and while Daniel liked them, Connor wasn't a fan. "I think they're too sophisticated," he said. It wasn't that they tasted yucky; he just wasn't ready for that flavor.
Although my boys have come so far, and I am so fiercely proud of the kind young fellas they've become, there is always something to worry about: Daniel has scoliosis, joint problems, and a mild case of cerebral palsy; he wears a rigid brace on his back to slow the increasing curvature of his spine, and braces on his feet for support. He walks, he skips, he hop-jumps, he swaggers, and he shuffle-runs, but his gait is noticeably different from other children's, and there is concern over his mobility as he grows bigger. Despite the physical setbacks—or maybe because of them, certainly because of all those initial fears—I feel that my children burn brighter than they otherwise might have. I sometimes study their faces, searching for ghosts of those dull-eyed, sick babies in the Isolettes. I find no traces; now they look at the world with eyes clear and bright, with such promise, such joy.
Yet I still falter as a parent, even around the matter of food. One night last winter, I slow-cooked a pot of large dried lima beans until they turned into the creamiest, starchiest nuggets, dotted in the pot with equally tender little carrot chunks. Daniel picked and grimaced at his plate, sighing loudly, obviously pained to be presented with this food. I couldn't take it. "What, son, is the matter?" I asked impatiently. "Ugh. I just really, really, really don't like carrots." This was not true. "Bullshit!" I yelled, startling both myself and him. He had disrespected good food, something I just wouldn't abide. I admit I sent him to bed without dinner. No meal, no calories, no nourishment—for the same child I had struggled to feed every last precious drop of my scarce breast milk. It was a luxury, maybe even a victory, in a way, to fall apart over something so trivial, to momentarily let go of my obsession with feeding and weight gain and just be a frustrated mom.
Later that night, when I checked in on him, I assured him that we were still pals and that we could start fresh, foodwise, tomorrow. The next day, I picked up some boquerones—those delicate, fresh white Spanish anchovies marinated in vinegar— which I set out on the coffee table with other goodies for family "cocktail hour." Daniel and Connor went nuts over them. This was how far we had come from the NICU, from the failed nursing and the pumping. This was food as pure pleasure—nature taking over after medicine and technology had done their jobs. My boys were exercising their good, free judgment to appreciate a tasty delicacy. Something as simple as this filled me with pride, broke me for good from the loneliness of those early days: my boys snatching up an anchovy, sharing it, dancing around the coffee table as they chewed and laughed, their voices pure melody—no angles, no edges to their sounds, only curves and circles, rising and falling like a bird's chirping, or maybe like a dolphin's singing. In this reverie of eating, they hopped back around for one more boquerone, little dolphins circling and opening their mouths for another delicious fishy.
Photography by Brian Woodcock
Family photos courtesy of Ann and Patrick Pittman
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Cooking Light.